Before I begin teaching a new dog any exercise I need a picture in my mind of the end result I am hoping to achieve. This will enable me to plan the dog’s training to include all the aspects that I desire. Offering to be a search steward at a trial is a wonderful way to learn what you do like. A few days spent watching all the attributes of dogs that do well in the square and handlers who get the best out of their dog should motivate you and fire your enthusiasm. You may also see some things that you dislike – make a mental note to avoid these and plan your training sessions to ensure you are not allowing unwanted traits to develop. When you know what you want, you are ready to begin training.
My list might look something like this;
- Dog to recognise the square and enthusiastically search within it.
- Dog to be enthusiastic to find articles.
- Dog to understand that the articles are within that square.
- Dog to pick up any article in the square immediately on locating it without further encouragement.
- A fast return.
- Dog to deliver article cleanly to hand without mouthing or dropping.
- Dog to be keen to return to square to find another article.
When I first started in trials a long time ago I was shown how to teach the square by tying the dog to the fence, placing four poles in the ground to form a 15 yard square and shake out a large bag of assorted toys and articles and then allowing the dog to go and find and return some of them. It is easy to expect a dog to do a whole exercise with very little training but, unfortunately this practise allows and encourages many faults.
Dogs trained in this manner might produce a different type of list;
- Dog noisy and overstimulated, but without a sound knowledge of the exercise.
- Dog rushing out to find article, but playing with it not returning it.
- Dog rejecting article to find something nicer.
- Slow return, mouthing and playing with article.
- Dog reluctant to surrender article.
Many years ago I attended a working trials training course run by Tony Lockyer. We were given four poles each and told to keep our dogs with us while we placed the poles just four paces apart. Four paces apart! Wow what good sense: the dogs were shown the relevance of the poles in such a simple way right from the start. The notion of pole awareness inspired me to make some changes to what I was doing with my dog. Thank you Tony.
These days I teach pole awareness even before my dog is ready to fetch articles in an acceptable manner. To do this I have my dog on lead and a pocketful of bite-sized titbits in my pocket, I place my poles to make a small square with four paces between them and then, standing in the centre of my small square I hold my dog back but allow him to watch as I deposit one titbit at the base of each pole (avoid the temptation to say "leave" instead if you must talk, you could say "Yummy food"). I then release him and allow him to find and eat the titbits, as he does this I discreetly reload the base of each pole with another titbit so he keeps going round finding a treat at the base of every pole. After he has had 8 – 10 treats I catch hold of his collar praise him and clip his lead back on. I allow him to watch again as I reload every pole with a treat and pull him out to one side of the small square (down-wind) and once more release him to help himself to the titbits. Some dogs will realise instantly that there is food at the base of the poles but others seem to think, at first, that there is food all over the field and they run all around hunting for it. I repeat the above actions until my dog knows the game; he will stop covering the field and will run around checking the base of each pole as soon as I release him. He is now ready to be told what game he is playing. I name this game ‘squares’ and from now on I say this word before loading the poles with treats. I continue to release him and allow him to check the poles to find his rewards. After several sessions of this I will leave my dog in the car and place my poles still only four paces apart in a small square, add a treat to the base of each and then get my dog from the car. I will then point to the poles and tell him ‘squares’ and release him to find his treats. We now have a ‘set-up’ that will inform the dog what exercise we are about to do, it will focus his mind on the poles and he will be ready to start to search (albeit for food at this stage).
I do not want my dog rushing off out of control to sniff at every pole he sees in the hope there might be a titbit near it as this would create a problem. Imagine being half way around your track at a trial and your dog notices the square being laid, or simply a marker pole the track layers have used to divide the field. Or your dog might spot a pole on the control field and wonder if there is a treat nearby. He must learn that the poles only have hidden rewards when I say the word ‘squares’.
Dogs use ‘discriminative stimuli’ in daily life to help them make sense of the world. For example; if you pick up your car keys your dog may be alerted that something is about to happen; if you then put on your wellingtons, your dog may become excited in anticipation of a walk; however if you pick up your keys and then put on your smart shoes he will sulk off to bed, knowing you are going to work. So keys plus wellingtons equal walk, keys plus shoes equal being left alone.
We need the dog to learn that a pole in the field does not mean food, unless you say ‘squares’. To achieve this you will need to be very consistent at this stage in his training. He must learn that if you do not point at a set of four poles and say "squares" there will be no reward. Get in the habit of placing poles about your training areas, simply to ignore them. If your dog rushes off to check them out, just let him go! There is no need to reprimand him, he will soon learn there is no point in this behaviour and it will extinguish – he will stop doing it.
Gradually, I will extend the size of the square and place titbits at varying distances from the poles (within the square not around the poles) so my dog learns to search the area within the four poles to find treats. So by the time it is up to 15 yards square there may be as many as 16 treats within that square; i.e. an average of four treats near(ish) to each of the four poles. At this stage I will expect my dog to whizz around inside the square keeping an eye on the poles for direction whilst he gathers rewards without any help – or discipline from me.
Now I have achieved the first requirement on my wish list without any retrieve at all and therefore no need whatsoever to chastise my dog for anything. He is now keen to search the square.
N.B. if your dog is already working squares and you expect to compete in the near future I would not recommend the above training as your dog could well stop picking up articles altogether and look for treats! This is stage one of training procedure that takes many months to complete – it is not a quick fix remedy!